The Mighty Bawd!

Today the world famous Tortoise Soup blog will be reviewing ‘The Country Wife’, currently playing at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.

The Country Wife was written in 1675 by William Wycherley and is one of the most famous of the ‘Restoration Comedies’. Restoration comedies date from the 1660s and 1670s, a period when the monarchy was restored under the new king Charles II. The theatres had been closed by the killjoy puritan government of Cromwell, but one of the first things that Charles did was to re-open the theatres. Playwrights such as Wycherley and Congreve revelled in their new freedoms and created complex and satirical farces that took the word ‘bawdy’ to new levels.

So lewd and lascivious, so openly revelling in sex and scandal, was The Country Wife that it went unperformed for nearly two hundred years. It was revived during the party loving 1920s from which date it has rightly been recognised as a classic of British theatre. The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester is a perfect location to stage Wycherley’s place. It is a beautiful, imposing theatre: traditionally victorian on the outside, yet relentlessly modern inside. Craft shops and a sumptious bar provide the perfect pre-theatre atmosphere before the audience enter the theatre in the round.

So, what did Tortoise Soup think of the play itself? I was very impressed that the Royal Exchange have been faithful to the original script. It is so easy to modernise restoration comedy, especially in this age of political and sexual scandal. This production stuck bravely to its guns, and both costume and design were firmly Seventeenth Century. This added greatly to my enjoyment of the play.

The cast were uniformly superb. Felix Scott was masterful in the lead role of Horner, the man who pretends to be castrated so that he can sleep with as many women as possible. Oliver Gomm was wonderfully energetic as the clown like Mr Sparkish and Amy Morgan was delightful in every way as the titular character Margery Pinchwife. By turns simplistic and scheming, she brought more than a touch of Joanna Page to the role and it was easy to see how she would enchant a man such as Horner.

Of course, it matters little how good the actors are if the writing is below par, but we need have no concerns on that ground: restoration comedies are fantastic entertainment and The Country Wife is at the very pinnacle of the genre. There is more bawdiness and bed hopping in two hours of this play than you would get in two years of Desperate Housewives. The denouement is frenetic and brilliant. The play is jam packed full of wit and if you don’t laugh uproariously at this production then there is no hope for you.

The language of the play is, of course, very much of its time. If taken at face value the use of many of the terms would be seen as shocking and brutal, there were audible gasps as one character threatened to carve the word ‘whore’ onto his wife’s forehead. The views on women are completely at odds with how we think now: for example a woman is compared unfavourably to a spaniel. It is important to recognise however that the words, like everything else in the play, should not be taken at face value – women and men are both the targets of Wycherley’s satire and both sexes are as scheming as the other.

Overall then, I have no hesitation in awarding The Country Wife at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre a prestigious Five Tortoise Shells! I had a fantastic evening from beginning to end and I recommend both the play and the theatre to all.
Please comment below, and tell me about any theatrical gems that you have seen recently!


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